Unions prompt tweaks to job searches at Bo

05/25/2018

Change is afoot at Bolinas-Stinson School, where staff, trustees and parents have shifted their focus toward replacing principal Jason Richardson, who resigned last month.

Yet frustration with the administration, which has been building this year over issues such as the discipline policy, school culture and communication, has colored the discussion around the hiring process.

The two unions representing the classified and the certificated staff sent a joint letter to the district earlier this month calling for a more transparent and inclusive hiring process. Staff were primarily concerned that the current structure allows the superintendent to make unilateral decisions. 

At a heated, more than five-hour special meeting last week, trustees revised the protocol for the hiring of the principal to attempt to address the concerns. Yet Superintendent John Carroll pushed back.

“I have a significant amount of experience in making hirings, and there are things that I look for that tell me a lot of information about candidates that people without training may not see,” he said. “There are certain educational policies and practices that are very unlikely to be a fit here.” As an example, he cited discipline policy, which has been at the center of recent debate at the school, with some saying Mr. Carroll’s progressive approach is not working.

Before the board made changes last Wednesday night, the district policy allowed a superintendent to prescreen all candidates independently, weeding out people based on objective criteria, such as meeting the basic job description. Yet it also allowed the superintendent to make subjective judgments about how a candidate aligns with the school’s mission.

Under the original protocol, following the prescreening, the remaining pool of applicants proceed to a committee of parents, trustees and staff for review, interviews and decision-making. The committee is tasked with reaching a consensus, after which the superintendent makes a recommendation to the board.

Ben Lowrance, a bus driver at the school who attended Wednesday’s meeting to represent the classified staff’s union, highlighted concerns about the subjective aspect of the prescreening. Keeping that screening hinged on basic qualifications was one of seven requests the unions made to the board.

“The feeling among the people who work for the school who sent in this letter is a hard but necessary truth: The relationship between the superintendent to the principal may not be the most important at the school. There is also the relationship of the principal to the students, staff, parents, the board,” Mr. Lowrance said. “The idea from the staff is that maybe if the superintendent is choosing candidates that he may get along with best, he is discarding candidates that get along with others—and that is not the best for the school.”

Involving more people in the full hiring process, Mr. Lowrance said, was essential to building trust at the school—a sentiment echoed by several other staffers and parents present at the meeting. 

“If you want to have a great group of people working together to create a great product—in this case, that’s education for children—you want to make sure that everyone feels included,” Steve O’Neal, a parent, said. Others have expressed concern that a district-wide survey asking for the five most important qualities in a principal was not enough. 

Ultimately, the board compromised. In a split vote of four to one, trustees decided that a representative from both unions will review the candidates that the superintendent rejects. Union representatives will have the power to pull a candidate out of the discard pile for consideration by the full committee. 

With three members in favor and two opposed, the board also voted that anyone on the hiring committee could review the applications rejected by the superintendent in the first round.

Veteran board member Jennie Pfeiffer cast the opposing vote, calling for even less power to be afforded to the superintendent.

Ms. Pfeiffer expressed concern about Mr. Carroll’s inherent bias and emphasized that in her memory, the initial screening was allowed merely as an administrative act to set aside those applications that didn’t meet all the requirements, and only when there was an excess of candidates. “The reason that this letter came to us from the unions is that there is a feeling that there is a lack of transparency or a perceived potential for more transparency,” she said. “I want to acknowledge that, and I want to say that if that is something that is happening at our school to the degree that both of our unions have come together to ask for these things, then we have an issue that we need to address.”

Ms. Pfeiffer added, “The problem is that people want to feel included.” Addressing Mr. Carroll’s argument in favor of the pre-screening process, she said, “No amount of explanation on your part, John, is going to take care of that problem.”

She also echoed a concern of a parent in the audience that the hiring process was being rushed, with the application process closing last Friday. 

But her fellow trustees assured Ms. Pfeiffer that past superintendents had been more hands-on during the pre-screening process than she remembered, and made the argument that it was more efficient to value Mr. Carroll’s expertise. 

Mr. Lowrance called the decision disappointing. “The more eyes you have on the mission and vision of the school, the better,” he implored.

The board pressed on, addressing all six of the unions’ remaining concerns. They passed a number of other policy changes to the hiring process for the principal, yet the discussion remained split, with some board members defending Mr. Carroll’s judgment and others expressing a willingness to forge a more inclusive process. The board granted the unions’ request to increase the number of classified staff on the hiring committee from one to two, but decided not to codify another request to specify one upper- and one lower-grade certificated staff member to be on the committee, leaving this up to the discretion of staff.

The board also complied with the unions’ hope that three certificated staff members sit on the hiring committee for a middle school position, one of which is also open to address a reconfiguration of teachers for next year.

The board was amenable to the request for the hiring committee to be part of the formulation of the interview questions. Without prompting, trustees also decided to include an eighth-grade student, a member of the confidential classified staff and a community member on the hiring committee. 

However, the board did not make any direct policy changes in regard to the unions’ request that “all personally identifiable information and demographic information be redacted from applications following best practices for eliminating hiring discrimination.” The union letter cited the Harvard Business Review.

Both Mr. Carroll and trustees brushed aside the concern at first, and explained the difficulty in assessing applications if key information was absent—for instance, if the name of a college was redacted to protect the age of an applicant or the gender of someone who had gone to a gender-specific school. 

Yet Mr. Lowrance expressed high frustration, especially with Mr. Carroll’s plea that redacting information would also be “more work.” “These biases we have are implicit,” he said. “They are not conscious, they are systemic. We live in a country with a troubled racial history—troubled to say the least. An extremely racist country. With the #Metoo movement and women’s power rising there, there’s a train that leaves the station. We need to be hitching our wagon to that train versus being a room full of white people deciding that they don’t have a bias and that they can make a good decision.”

The board ultimately agreed to put exploring best practices for eliminating hiring discrimination on the agenda for a later date, though the vote was three to two.

The unions’ last request was to clarify whether Mr. Carroll is a voting member of the hiring committee. He is. 

In an email to the Light after the meeting, Mr. Carroll expressed gratitude to the board for largely upholding his authority to play a managerial role in the hiring of the principal, with whom he works closely on a daily basis.

“I had gone into the meeting thinking that the board would be considering a union request to remove or restrict one of my most important duties, namely managing the hiring process,” he wrote. “My perspective was that they were facing a moment to express confidence in our governance structure and in my abilities to do the job or to show a lack of confidence in the same areas.”